On June 14, 2016, President Obama strongly condemned Donald Trump’s xenophobic comments following the horrific massacre in Orlando, comments that essentially reiterated his earlier calls to ban all Muslims from emigrating to the United States. “We are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be,” Obama noted of Trump and others’ intolerant attitudes. “We’ve gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear,” the president continued, “and we came to regret it.”
I suspect most Americans have a general sense of the racism and xenophobia that President Obama called “a shameful part of our history.” The details and consequences of that history, however, are often forgotten. Given the “dangerous” thinking Trump and others are espousing, some of those details, especially those with regard to the fear and persecution of immigrants and refugees, bear remembering.
After the Chinese immigrants and refugees arrived in the U.S. during the 1850s and 1860s—many of whom were fleeing the Opium Wars and economic instability in China—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor concluded that “the only purpose in society for which they are available is to perform manual labor.” As I have detailed in my book, Bilingual Public Schooling in the United States: A History of America’s “Polyglot Boardinghouse, the House’s committee, agreeing with others in the nation who were fearful of the newcomers, resolved that the Chinese “cannot and will not assimilate with our people, but remain unalterably aliens.” The result of this “dangerous . . . kind of thinking,” to use President Obama’s words, was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Exclusion also was the consequence of the xenophobic attitudes Americans developed toward the eastern and southern Europeans, especially the Italians, Russian Jews, and Poles. As these groups emigrated to the U.S. in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, they were considered inferior to the northern European “races.” The U.S. Immigration Commission, drawing on the racial pseudo-science of the day, stated that many of these newcomers were biologically “prone to criminal activity and had ‘little adaptability to highly organized society.’” (The Committee’s suggestion that certain groups of people are predisposed toward criminality eerily parallels Trump’s outrageous remarks about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans last year.) This very dangerous kind of thinking not only led to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924—which essentially excluded all but a handful of eastern and southern Europeans from entering the nation—but also America’s brief fascination with eugenics.
The fear of Chinese and southern and eastern Europeans immigrants developed during times of relative peace in the U.S. During war, however, xenophobia historically has been almost fanatical. When the United Stated declared war on Germany in 1917, German immigrants (as well as German-Americans who had lived in the U.S. for generations) were seen as domestic enemies. Even though the German-Americans were loyal to the Allies, they erroneously were suspected of plotting to poison water supplies and foodstuff and to bomb the nation’s industries and infrastructure. The consequences of this dangerous kind of thinking was unprecedented. All things German suddenly became un-American—even “sauerkraut” was briefly renamed “liberty cabbage.” Many German-American newspapers and organizations were banned, and those who questioned the war effort were jailed. On the home front, a nativist mob mentality took over, leading to the killing of a German pastor in Indiana and the lynching of a German immigrant in Illinois.
Of course, these examples of the consequences of what President Obama called a “dangerous . . . mindset” barely scratch the surface of the “shameful part[s] of our past” that the president reminded us not to repeat—a shameful past that also includes the mass killing of Native Americans, the enslavement and prejudice against African Americans, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Throughout U.S. history those who were discriminated against and their millions of conscientious supporters resisted that “dangerous . . . kind of thinking.” Obama is correct: prejudiced thinking “betrays the very values America stands for,” and so, like those in the past, we must resist that “mindset.” Let not this be another moment in history that we come to regret.